So I thought I'd post an update and let you know how my year in reading is progressing so far. Also included are some recommendations, because I seem to have been lucky in the books I've picked up so far this year...
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Little, Brown: 2013)
So the year got off to an epic start. I began The Luminaries in January, during my last couple of days' holiday over Christmas and New Year, and it's an excellent book to read on the sofa, on a rainy afternoon, with a cup of hot chocolate, etc. This is partly because the way Catton establishes the world of the novel - not just the setting of the mining town Hokitika but the particular quality of vision and 'feel' of the narrative - is stunning and totally immersive. It's also because the narrative is a long, intricate one best suited to concentrated bouts of reading. In fact, I lost the threads of the mystery slightly when I went back to work in January - and I'm planning to reread the book later this year. The Luminaries is definitely worth the time investment, if only to witness an exciting writer taking the novel form and trying to make it once again new.
Louis de Bernieres, Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Vintage: 1993)
I'd read this already, but so long ago that it was like a new book to me. (Sorry, Mr de Bernieres. That's a reflection on my own powers of memory, not your writing.) I love magical realism, and this was de Bernieres' first non-magical-realist novel, but it's still got something of the mood of the genre - bright, ornate and slightly larger than life. Simply put, it's about the impact of war on a Greek island. It's also a love story. It's been criticised for its handling of the historical material, and de Bernieres' narrator is certainly opinionated and forthright (about, for example, the communist organisation ELAS, which he presents relentlessly from one side). But as a story, it absolutely works. This was the book that every British reader had about their person in the 1990s (Hugh Grant famously read it in the closing scene of Notting Hill, which pretty much sums up its place in British culture at the time). I think it also deserves to endure and enjoy a new life in the 21st century, because it's that fundamental thing: a great story, well told - and the discussion about how it presents history is one worth having.
Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf: 2008) and George Saunders' short stories (The New Yorker)
I have a special affection for books published the same year my first book came out. I'd read a few of Lahiri's stories before, but Unaccustomed Earth is the first collection I've read as a whole and it was excellent. Lahiri is a quiet writer. I mean this as the highest of praise. Her particular concerns are the emotional realities and relationships of her characters, and how these develop over time. In the title story, a widowed father visits his lonely daughter and small grandson in her new home and tends her garden. She is vacillating over inviting him to live with her. Meanwhile, the elderly father is reluctant to tell his daughter about a new love affair. The story follows the two of them as they agonise, hesitate and eventually come to some level of understanding. This is typical of the collection, which does what short stories do best - build a world in just a few pages, and make you care enough to feel its beauty and intensity, the tragedy of its reversals and the joy of its resolutions.
I've also been reading George Saunders' short stories this year, and it's interesting to compare them. The two writers are pretty much opposites on the surface (though it might be worth questioning how different two writers can be, on a world scale, when they have cut their teeth on MFA courses 300 miles apart in the United States). But certainly, the lenses through which they focus their stories are different ones: Lahiri's is the slightly disjointed world of families of Bengali origin living in America and (occasionally) Britain; Saunders' is the odd, futuristic realm of capitalist society gone wild. But both writers have that particular quality which is at the heart of fine writing: the quality of making the specific moment in time and space real - the return of a dead aunt, slightly decomposing, to a family's living room, in Saunders' case, or the peace of a grandfather reading his grandson The Cat in the Hat in accented, careful English, in Lahiri's. Because here's the thing: by making such moments real, both writers make them at the same time transcendent and universal, moments which have something of relevance and urgency to say to us as readers. In novels you get the long view of cause and effect, the punch of an ending which has been 400 pages in the making, but in short stories these moments of transcendence are particularly concentrated and intense. Seek out both Lahiri and Saunders if you can (it won't be hard; they're both flavour of the month right now!). Or if you only have time for one or two stories, I would suggest 'Unaccustomed Earth' and 'Sea Oak'...
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (Transworld: 2013)
Another book that has been very much in the news, at least in the UK, and at the time of writing has won the Costa Award and was shortlisted for the Women's Prize. The book is based on the premise that Ursula Todd, the heroine, is born over and over again in 1910, living many possible lives (and suffering many possible deaths). Atkinson uses this idea, which is not in itself original, to do something very unique: to show how a character (and a family) alters slightly according to the paths they choose to take. It's clever, because in real life there is no 'might have been' - our progression through time becomes a single line. So if we make a mistake - marry the wrong person, say, or go to the wrong air-raid shelter on the wrong day during the Blitz, both of which are things that happen to Ursula - that choice assumes a reality, becomes the only reality. But in fiction it is perfectly possible to create a character, unmake them, change their choices or their odds, make them again - and for each version of that character to be 'real' in the sense that we as readers fully believe in them. Which is what Atkinson manages, and it's a significant achievement, as well as a thoroughly gripping story.
Michael Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2009)
Plenty of people have attended Michael Sandel's course of lectures on justice (14,000 Harvard students, apparently, plus about 5 million YouTube viewers). This is sort of the book of the film. In it, Michael Sandel takes contemporary moral problems and uses them as a way in to various questions of ethics that have troubled moral and political philosophers over the last two millenia, with a particular focus on the idea of justice and a just society. It's an incredibly absorbing read, and easy enough for non-philosophers to get into the arguments - reading this, you will have occasional uncanny moments when you realise why you think what you think about a particular ethical issue, and also moments when your own views suddenly need re-examining. I'd thoroughly recommend it, but like everyone else you've probably already read it...
And also worth a mention are Mary Taylor Simeti, On Persephone's Island (Vintage: 1986) - a memoir by an American writer living in Palermo, which is an absorbing account of the rhythm of the seasons during one year on a historical estate in rural Sicily - and Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes (Abacus: 1995) - an excellent history of the 20th century by one of its most prominent historians, also interesting for its insights on what it means to both live through and write about history. Both are books I picked up for their loose relation to the work I'm doing on my new book. But both, I think, deserve recommendations in their own right.
So there you go: 2014 so far has been a good year in reading. A memoir, some non-fiction, some short stories and two books published in 2013 - I'm not doing too badly with my resolutions after all. As you can probably tell from the way I've written about them, all of these books come recommended. Let me know what you've been reading in the comments below!